My latest Clean Break column:
Two years ago I made a decision to ditch my car and start navigating the growing universe of transportation offerings available in the city.
One of my first decisions was to join the car-share service Zipcar, which has about 470 cars in its fleet spread across roughly 200 locations. Zipcar, along with public transit, cycling, the occasional cab ride, and a bit of day-before planning, has made it quite simple to move around the city without worrying about the hassle of car ownership: insurance, repairs, fuel costs, and parking.
There are currently three major car-share options in Toronto. In addition to Zipcar, there is Toronto-founded AutoShare, which has about 300 cars across 150 locations, and the Daimler-owned Car2Go, which launched this summer with 250 Smart Fortwo cars scattered across 200 city-owned Green P parking lots.
In all, Torontonians now have access to more than 1,000 vehicles at 550 different city spots, making car-sharing more ubiquitous in this city than all Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, Second Cup and Timothy’s coffee shop locations combined.
It’s tempting to view the three as competing services; to labour over choosing one over the other the same way you might weigh the pros and cons of different cellphone service. The companies surely view themselves as competitors.
But for the consumer it’s not necessarily a choice of this “or” that. I decided this month to also join AutoShare and Car2Go because for an extra $45 a year, beyond what I would pay per hour or minute to sign out a car, doing so has dramatically expanded my travel options. (Pay-per-use fees range from about $10 to $12 an hour).
AutoShare and Zipcar may be quite similar, but having extra locations and cars to choose from is comforting. Just being with Zipcar, for example, I occasionally found it difficult to book a car nearby at the time it was needed. AutoShare now serves as a backup for Zipcar, and vice versa.
The vehicles in each company’s fleets are also different, offering the chance to try out different types of cars, such as the hybrid-electrics (Chevy Volts and Toyota Priuses) and all-electric vehicles (Nissan Leafs and Mitsubishi i-MiEVs) in AutoShare’s growing fleet.
Car2Go is quite different from both AutoShare and Zipcar in that you don’t have to return the vehicle to its original location. Instead, you can take one-way trips and only pay by the minute, not the hour.
The catch is you can only reserve a car up to 24 hours in advance, or just take your chances. If there’s one parked in a city Green P lot, you just swipe your member card against a device attached to the car’s windshield and you’re off.
This came in handy last week when, having rode my bicycle to work, I didn’t feel well enough at the end of the day to cycle home. I found a Green P lot a block from the office, grabbed a Smart car, and drove it to a lot near my home in the Beaches. A ride in a cab would have been twice as expensive.
Kevin McLaughlin, founder and president of AutoShare, prefers to think of Car2Go as a “self-driving taxi” service and not true car-sharing. “By far their (Car2Go’s) biggest impact, at least at the beginning, will be on taxis, Bixi (bike sharing), walking and even transit.”
Even with three services now operating in Toronto, the market continues to grow “very well,” says McLaughlin. “We are having our biggest growth this year by far.”
Christian Demers, general manager of Zipcar’s Toronto office, says he doesn’t expect that growth to slow down. “If you look at the development going on downtown it simply can’t slow down,” he says. “It will drive more people to join car-share programs because parking spots are less and less available.”
Innovation will also continue to grow the pie. The Zipcar, AutoShare and Cars2Go business models aren’t economical in areas with low population densities, such as the suburbs. This has created opportunity for peer-to-peer car sharing – services that allow car owners to rent out their own vehicles hourly, right out of their own driveways, when they’re not using them.
Earlier this month, General Motors’ announced that any GM vehicle equipped with the OnStar service could be rented out by the owner through a partnership with the peer-to-peer car-share service RelayRides, which started out in Boston and San Francisco and has since expanded its offering throughout the United States. It’s only a matter of time before it comes to Canada.
Ontario law currently disallows peer-to-peer car sharing, so legislative changes would be required, but both established players such as Zipcar and AutoShare and new players are kicking the tires and keen to experiment.
“People are still trying to figure it out,” says Demers, adding that wireless connectivity, GPS, the Web and the management of all three through increasingly advanced software has brought concepts like vehicle sharing to a new level.
“The technology in all these vehicles, like OnStar, changes the landscape of what you can do versus where we were 10 years ago,” he says.
The big caveat is that there will continue to be a big percentage of the population that, because of where they live or the nature of their work, simply can’t benefit from car-sharing.
It’s not for all people—but it is for a lot of people, such as the growing number of folks who work from home or have flexibility with their job. For this reason, car-sharing isn’t just here to stay, it will – has? – become an increasingly visible reality of city life, and a welcome one.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.